NCAA FOOTBALL: Colonels close out season with big win

Davion Ross had a kick-off return for a touchdown erased by a questionable penalty earlier in the season against West Virginia on national television.

That disappointment had lingered in his mind ever since.

"I've been dying to take on back," Ross said.

The sophomore got that chance - in a very important moment - on Saturday at Roy Kidd Stadium.

Ross returned a kickoff 94 yards for a score in the second quarter which started a huge surge of momentum that carried the Colonels (3-6) to a 49-17 win over Western Carolina (0-2) in the first-ever Opportunity Bowl.

EKU trailed 10-7 after a defensive score by the Catamounts, but just 14 seconds later jumped back in front with a big special teams play.

That return started a 35-0 run by the Colonels.

"For us to come back and get the momentum was huge," EKU coach Walt Wells said.

Running back Alonzo Booth had four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving), Jackson Beerman had two scores (one passing, one receiving) and redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Velez had two touchdowns passes in his first-ever college start.

The Colonels finished with a season-best 590 yards of total offense.

"It was a very good opportunity for me," Velez said. "I was ready to come in and lead the team."

The game marked an unique conclusion to a most unusual season.

When the Ohio Valley Conference announced it would move football to the spring, EKU opted out with the intention of playing in the fall. The school put together a nine-game, completely non-conference schedule.

That decision left the Colonels without a chance to play for an OVC title or a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.

School officials, though, wanted to give the team a special experience. EKU's season finale was re-branded as the Opportunity Bowl and the winner was awarded a trophy and rings for the players.

"I'm so grateful for our administration for putting on this on," Wells said of the Opportunity Bowl. "It was a great experience for our guys to play for something in a year we weren't able to do that.

The Colonels took the lead on a 4-yard TD run by Alonzo Booth mid-way through the first quarter. WCU's Paxton Robertson kicked a 52-yard field goal before Ricky Palao came up with a potential momentum-changing play.

The 6-foot-2, 270-pound defensive tackle picked up a fumble and went 54 yards for a score that put Western Carolina up 10-7 with 11:26 left in the second quarter.

"We were playing well, we were doing some really good things and we just had a slip in protection," Wells said.

Ross had the answer.

The sophomore picked up the kickoff on a bounce on the 6-yard line and went untouched up the right sideline.

"Once I got past Alonzo Booth, I knew I was going to score," Ross said.

And from that point on, the Colonels took control.

Booth - 6-foot-1, 250-pound, bruising running back - showed off his athleticism by catching a 69-yard TD pass from Velez in the second quarter.

"Every time in practice when we run those wheel routes, I just tell him to be ready because I'm coming to you," Velez said of Booth.

The Colonels led 21-10 at halftime and took that same advantage into the fourth quarter despite two turnovers early in the second half.

On the first play of the final period, the EKU coaching staff dug deep into playbook looking for a potential knockout blow.

Velez flipped the ball back to Beerman, who hit Jacquez Jones on a 63-yard touchdown pass.

"We really on worked on that like twice in practice - and it only worked once. I guess coach trusts us," Beerman said with a laugh.

The Colonels scored three times in just less than three minutes to turn the game into a blowout.

Booth had a 6-yard TD run and Beerman caught a 66-yard touchdown pass.

With 4:23 left, Booth capped a remarkable performance with a 28-yard TD run.

"As long as we give him a crease, he will take it," Wells said of Booth.

Booth had 178 yards rushing on 27 attempts and one catch as well.

Beerman had five catches for 102 yards. Jones had 100 yards on five catches and Keyion Dixon had three receptions for 52 yards.

Velez was 19-of-32 for 310 yards with two interceptions and two touchdowns.

EKU limited the Catamounts to just 255 total yards of offense (3.8 yards a play). WCU was 3-of-15 on third down.

Daulson Fitzpatrick and Allante Leapheart had interceptions as the Colonels snapped a two-game losing streak.

"Our defense had one of its best performances of the year," Wells said.

Earlier in the week, Wells had once again confirmed that EKU was actively looking to add games to the 2020 schedule.

After the resounding bowl victory on Saturday at Roy Kidd Stadium, the coach indicated that would likely not happen now.

"I think this is the end. It was a great way to end it," Wells said.

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